If you happen to have the soundtrack to the 1994 film “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” then play Track 8, “A Fine Romance,” in which the singer laments being in a relationship with a partner who does not reciprocate in the physical affection department. It’s a snappy little song with clever lyrics that are made even more interesting by the way they are delivered, by the one-and-only Lena Horne. She’s completely in command, and the orchestra sounds fantastic. It’s one of hundreds of songs this wonderful singer recorded over many decades.
Lena Horne had a long career in Hollywood movies, on the Broadway stage, on television, as a performer in nightclubs, and as a recording artist. She was not the first black actress to appear on the big screen, but she was the first to be given the Hollywood glamour treatment. She was definitely a groundbreaker. Sadly, racism touched just about every aspect of her life and work.
Lena Horne was born in Brooklyn to a large, privileged family that was presided over by her maternal grandmother. But when Lena was very young her mother, an aspiring singer and actress, took her away to travel with her as she sought work as a performer. Her mother often left young Lena to live for weeks or months at a time with various friends and relatives. It must have been difficult for such a young girl.
When she was still in her teens Horne got a job performing in the chorus at the Cotton Club, up in Harlem. All the performers were black, and all the patrons were white. The black performers had to come in the back door, and if black relatives of the performers came to see the show they had to sit at a “family table,” which was of course in the back next to the kitchen.
From there Horne went on tour with a traveling orchestra and eventually went out to L.A. and performed at the Café Trocadero. Soon after, with the help of Walter White of the NAACP, she signed a contract at MGM to appear in movies. This was a big deal back then, because it was the Golden Age of Hollywood and the major studios were at the peak of their creative output. White wanted to use Horne to help improve the image of black people in movies, promising that she would never have to play a maid. But to Horne’s disappointment she was not destined to be a big star with leading roles. She appeared in about a dozen films for MGM, mostly in the 1940s. She could be given one song to perform that had nothing to do with the plot. This made it possible for her appearance in a movie to be edited out when it was shown in the racist South.
Eventually Horne stopped making movies and instead developed her nightclub act. She got really good, too, performing in some of the best rooms, including the Sands in Las Vegas and the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. She recorded live albums at these venues that were commercially successful. She also recorded dozens of studio albums, and while those were not always commercially successful, they were almost always artistically successful. She had learned to put emotion into her songs. It’s just a hunch on my part, but I’m thinking that in the recording studio many years after she left Hollywood and she was singing “A Fine Romance,” she was not lamenting a lover but rather her experience at MGM. She was hoping for fireworks but instead got bottle rockets.
In the 1960s Horne got involved in the civil rights movement. The new president, John F. Kennedy, was dragging his feet on helping Americans who were black, and leaders from the NAACP and other groups began holding the administration’s feet to the fire. They demanded a sit-down, and Horne participated in a meeting in New York City with black activists and Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. She also traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, where she met Medgar Evers and participated in a rally organized by the civil rights leader. On this trip she also met with a group of black children who were learning how to defend themselves against beatings by racist cops, and she sang at a church concert. Less than a week later Horne was waiting in the ABC studios, about to go on the “Today” show with Hugh Downs, when she learned, just moments before airtime, that Evers had been murdered. It was difficult for her to keep her composure.
Horne also took part in the March on Washington in 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his memorable speech. Horne did not give a speech herself, but she did go to the microphone to shout the word “Freedom!” so that marchers knew that she was there.
Also during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Horne appeared on various television shows, including “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Judy Garland Show,” “The Muppet Show” and “Sesame Street.” She returned to the big screen in 1978, in “The Wiz,” playing Glinda. And she continued to record many albums.
I learned all this reading “Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne,” an all-encompassing, 500-page biography by the author and journalist James Gavin, who has written many highly regarded books, including one on Chet Baker and another on the history of New York’s cabaret scene. I happen to be personally acquainted with the author. We’ve stayed at the same house at Fire Island. His knowledge about 20th Century popular American music is unrivaled by anyone I’ve ever met. He’s the kind of person who has never walked or driven past a record store without going inside. His music collection is legendary. For me it was great fun to read about Lena Horne in a book written by someone I know! He patiently and graciously answered many questions I had.
For me, some of the highlights of the book included the author’s description of what the Cotton Club was like. He also describes aspects of the studio system that existed in Hollywood back in that era, and he includes in-depth details such as what type of makeup was used on Horne’s complexion for filming. He leaves nothing out. The book includes a number of really nice photographs of Lena Horne taken throughout her life. In most of the pictures, at least to my eye, she looks like she is having a good time, especially when she is with her daughter, Gail.
The author also includes a discography and a filmography at the back. I found myself flipping back and forth quite a bit. Several times I found myself looking up scenes from some of the movies in which Horne appeared on YouTube. And more than once I ordered some of her albums from Amazon. When playing one of these CDs, a Collectibles version of “At the Waldorf Astoria” and “At the Sands,” which were recorded in front of her live audience (of mostly rich white people), I can literally hear the emotions described by the author in her voice. For anyone who is a fan of Lena Horne or who would simply like to learn more about this important American artist, I can’t recommend this book enough.
Here are some additional notes from this excellent biography:
Lena Horne was married twice and had two children, a son and a daughter, with her first husband.
Her second husband was Lennie Hayton, who was white and Jewish. He was a bandleader, and they worked together. As an interracial couple, they faced housing discrimination in Los Angeles and in New York City.
She worked hard on her singing and was constantly improving.
She had a fiery temper.
She often went to the movies alone.
When she was first hired at MGM and went to get her hair done, a hairdresser refused to work on her because she was black.
Also in Hollywood, she met Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen, who had both been in “Gone With The Wind.”
She was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
She had flings with many fellow celebrities, including Orson Welles, Joe Louis and even Vincente Minnelli!
Her close friends included Ava Gardner.
She was in a Broadway musical with Ricardo Montalban.
She admired the singing of Aretha Franklin.
During World War II, Horne entertained in various USO shows and was infuriated when white German POWs were seated in the front and black U.S. service members in the back.
Also during the war years, Horne paid multiple visits to Tuskegee, Alabama, to support the Tuskegee Airmen, the courageous group of black fighter pilots. She made several trips at her own expense and on her way home from one particular visit she stopped at an airport diner but was denied service because she was black. But that didn’t stop a boy from the kitchen from asking for her autograph as she was leaving, which she gave him.
On a dinner date once with her husband at a fancy establishment, she threw an ashtray at a guy who called her a racial slur, clobbering him and causing him to bleed from the head. The incident got in the papers the next day.
When she appeared in “The Wiz,” the director, Sidney Lumet, was her son in law!
Lena Horne recorded the song “A Fine Romance” more than once. The version I like, the one on the Priscilla soundtrack, is from her 1988 album “The Men in My Life.”
The title of the book comes from the song “Stormy Weather,” which Horne performed in a film of the same name. It was her signature song.
In the early 1980s Horne did a one-women Broadway show, “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” which was a big hit. As the author explains, this was her version of her story, told the way she wanted to tell it, which was not 100 percent accurate in all aspects. But the audiences loved it, and Horne took the show on tour and also filmed it for TV. It turned into a “victory lap” of sorts, allowing her to put a nice exclamation mark on her long career as an entertainer. At the 1981 Tony Awards ceremony she received a special award for her show and then performed “Believe in Yourself,” her song from “The Wiz.” This is easy to find on YouTube. It’s a powerful performance that brings a tear to my eye no matter how many times I watch the clip.
Lena Horne took me away from the U.S. presidents for a while, but I sure am glad I took the time to read about her. What a remarkable life she had. Speaking of the presidents, she lived long enough to see Barack Obama elected!
Leonardo da Vinci was one of the greatest painters of all time. His “greatest hits” include the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and Vitruvian Man, that instantly recognizable drawing of a naked man standing with outstretched arms inside a square inside a circle. But he was much more than just a painter. He pioneered the study of human anatomy. Throughout his life he dissected corpses and completed accurate, illustrative drawings. Leonardo was also an engineer who designed everything from large water projects to weapons. He studied mathematics and was able to depict numerical concepts in visual form. He invented and played various musical instruments. He also designed elaborate theatrical spectacles, which we can only imagine today based on existing written descriptions.
Leonardo was born in 1452 in the small town of Vinci, Italy, which was near Florence, which was a center of the arts at the time. He was born out of wedlock. His father was a notary, which was an important profession at the time. Being born to parents who were not married was not a source of public shame then, but because Leonardo was of illegitimate birth he was not able to follow in his father’s career path. But this might have been more a blessing than a curse for a gifted youngster who exhibited much talent as an artist. As a teen-ager Leonardo went to Florence and became an apprentice in the studio of Verrocchio, who was an established artist. At the time, art was more of a team effort, where paintings were commissioned and painted by an artist assisted by numerous apprentices. Eventually Leonardo was able to branch out on his own and received support from various patrons, including the wealthy Medici family, and the politically powerful Francesco Sforza and Cesare Borgia. In addition to Florence, Leonardo also lived and worked in Milan, Venice and Rome. He spent the final part of his life in France, where he was part of the court of King Francis I, who put him up in a nice house. Leonardo died in 1519, and one account says that he was being cradled in the king’s arms as he passed away, although that story might be more legend than fact.
Leonardo’s most defining characteristic, which he had throughout his life, was intense curiosity about the world and everything in it. Throughout his life he kept notebooks, pages and pages of notebooks, in which he documented what he learned, sketched out his drawings and even wrote down shopping and to-do lists.
This is all according to “Leonardo Da Vinci,” the 500-page illustrated biography by Walter Isaacson that was published in 2017. This was a pleasure to read. This is the third biography I have read by Isaacson, who is a historian and former editor of Time magazine. I previously read his excellent books on Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. He also wrote biographies of Steve Jobs and Henry Kissinger that I have not read.
Here are a few more notes about Leonardo:
He had his own peculiar style of writing, in mirror text from right to left. All of his notebooks are written in this manner.
Leonardo is thought of as an old, bearded man with thick eyebrows and deep wrinkles, but when he was young he was handsome and muscular.
He dressed in a flamboyant manner.
He had a younger male lover, whom he depicted in many of his drawings.
According to the author, Leonardo was not troubled in the least with his sexual orientation.
Later in life Leonardo developed a strong relationship with another younger male companion, who was probably more of a secretary.
Sigmund Freud wrote a major psychological study of Leonardo that Isaacson dismisses as bunk.
Many of Leonardo’s works were abandoned, lost to the ravages of time or were unrealized, including a massive monument of a horse, which was to be erected in Milan. Today a version of that monument, known as The American Horse, can be seen at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Leonardo crossed paths with another artistic genius, Michelangelo. But while Michelangelo focused on distinct lines in his paintings, Leonardo focused on the shadows. Leonardo’s technique is known as “sfumato,” or smoke, as exhibited most prominently in the Mona Lisa.
Leonardo had the Mona Lisa with him until the end of his life, and he probably considered it unfinished.
In 2017, the same year this biography was published, the artist’s recently discovered “Salvator Mundi” painting of Christ holding an orb was sold at auction for $450 million!
As I mentioned, this was a fascinating book to read. But it is also a wonderful book to simply hold and look at. For anyone interested in getting a copy I would recommend purchasing the hardcover, which includes beautifully reproduced color images of his paintings and major drawings. Sometimes I spent just as much time looking at the various paintings and drawings as reading about them.
Clint Hill was a Secret Service agent assigned to protect Jacqueline Kennedy. He’s the one who jumped on the back of the car in Dallas. He’s done a number of television interviews over the years, and he also wrote a few books about his experiences, including “Mrs. Kennedy and Me,” about the four years he spent with the first lady and her family.
Through Mr. Hill, we learn a bit more about Mrs. Kennedy and her day-to-day life both in and out of the public eye. He narrates about life in the White House, various private family retreats to Florida and Massachusetts, as well as high-profile trips overseas. Many of the stories in this book are fun to read about. The chapters about the assassination come at the very end, and some of the details, which are also documented elsewhere, are quite grim. (Hill also wrote “Five Days in November,” which is an hour-by-hour account of the trip to Texas that ended in tragedy for Mrs. Kennedy and the whole country, which is another worthwhile read, in my opinion.)
Two of the more peculiar incidents described in the book both involve Aristotle Onassis, the wealthy and famous Greek who would one day become Jackie’s second husband. Jackie made two solo trips to Greece during JFK’s presidency. According to the book, Hill was summoned to the Oval Office before the first trip and told by the President himself that whatever happens, to keep Jackie away from Onassis. But on her second trip Jackie stayed with Onassis on his yacht, this time with the full blessing of JFK. Hill says he was puzzled but that he never felt it his place to ask for explanation.
Here are a few more notes about Jackie Kennedy:
Like her husband, she came from a wealthy family.
She was beautiful, glamorous and immensely popular.
Daughter Caroline Kennedy was a toddler when JFK was elected, and John Jr. was born in the weeks after the election in 1960. Another child, Patrick, was born in the summer of 1963 but died.
Mrs. Kennedy liked to exercise every day, and some of her favorite physical activities included horseback riding and waterskiing.
She renovated the White House and then gave a tour that was nationally televised.
She was fluent in French, which helped endear her to foreign dignitaries on the Kennedys’ trip to Paris.
On the Texas trip, while in San Antonio, Mrs. Kennedy addressed the League of United Latin American Citizens in Spanish and received an enthusiastic response.
Also during JFK’s presidency, Jackie helped arrange a visit of the Mona Lisa to the United States. I’ll have more to say about that most famous of all paintings in some upcoming, non-presidential book reports.
Top Photo: Mrs. Kennedy in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House. (Robert Knudsenderivative, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
John F. Kennedy, also known as JFK, also known as Jack Kennedy, was our nation’s 35th president. Among his most lasting achievements were the founding of the Peace Corps and his fostering of the space program. He also prevented nuclear annihilation. He was a war hero. He was young and energetic and had movie-star good looks. His wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, also known as Jackie, and later Jackie O, was enormously popular in her own right. Kennedy was the immediate successor to Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was a Democrat. He defeated then Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the presidential election of 1960. Three years later, in an event that shocked the world, Kennedy was shot to death in front of thousands of people in Dallas. His assassination took place on this day (Nov. 22) in 1963. Upon JFK’s death, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as President.
Today’s book report is about “An Unfinished Life — John. F. Kennedy: 1917-1963,” by Robert Dallek. This biography, at 718 pages of text, focuses mostly on the Kennedy presidency. There is almost nothing in the book about the assassination itself, although there is plenty of information about the many issues Kennedy was wrestling with in the weeks and months leading up to his trip to Texas. The author speculates about what kind of president JFK might have become had he won re-election to a second term.
As president, Kennedy faced a number of domestic and international challenges, including the economy, civil rights, dealing with the Russians in post World War II Europe, and the immense challenges that the existence of nuclear weapons posed to our country and to the world at large. It was the height of the Cold War, and Kennedy clashed with Nikita Kruschev, the leader of the USSR.
Both his biggest failure and his greatest success while in office involved Cuba. Shortly after Kennedy took office, he authorized a covert operation intended to remove Fidel Castro from power. The plan, which had been formulated during Eisenhower’s presidency, was to use CIA operatives and anti-Castro Cuban exiles to invade the island, where they would presumably be greeted as liberators (sound familiar?), thus causing Castro to be toppled from power. Of course this did not go as planned. What became known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion turned into a massive disaster, ultimately strengthening Castro’s hand. Kennedy could have escalated matters by ordering a full-scale military assault, as many of his military advisors had presumed would happen, but to his credit Kennedy accepted the loss and took responsibility for it.
The following year, in October 1962, the Soviet Union began installing missiles in Cuba that they could have used to strike the United States with nuclear weapons. Some of Kennedy’s military advisors wanted us to bomb Cuba and ask questions later, or to launch a ground invasion. Anyone who has seen the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film “Dr. Strangelove” might remember how crazy for war some of the military chiefs were. According to Dallek, at least one of them was drawn from real life. Instead of a belligerent military response, which in all likelihood would have sparked all-out nuclear war, Kennedy decided to use a naval blockade, which he called a “quarantine,” along with diplomacy, which turned into quite forceful diplomacy involving the United Nations, to get the missiles out of Cuba. It worked. In my view, it was Kennedy’s astute, intelligent and well-reasoned leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis that prevented unspeakable death and destruction.
The book starts at the beginning of the 35th president’s life. As we learn, John F. Kennedy was born 1917 to a famous and wealthy family. Both of JFK’s grandfathers had been prominent in local and state politics. JFK was the second oldest of nine children of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. Joe Sr. was a successful businessman who became immensely wealthy through many ventures as well as by investing in the stock market. He was also a prominent Democrat. President Franklin D. Roosevelt named him the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and later appointed him ambassador to Great Britain. In 1938, as Britain was appeasing Hitler, all 11 Kennedys went to London, and they were there when Nazi Germany invaded Poland and World War II broke out. But Joe Sr. was an isolationist, and when he said some things in the press that were not in keeping with U.S. policy at the time, FDR recalled him.
Back home, after Kennedy graduated from Harvard in 1940, he attempted to join the U.S. Army as an officer, but he was disqualified due to health reasons. The following year, he tried again, this time with the Navy. His father pulled some strings to get him in despite a bad back, and JFK eventually assumed command of various PT Boats. In 1943 he was commanding the PT-109 in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific theater when it was struck and destroyed by a Japanese ship. He led himself and the 10 surviving crew members to safety, but it took many days for them to be rescued. At one point Kennedy swam 2 miles through the open ocean to seek help for his men, despite what must have been excruciating physical pain, not to mention extreme hunger and thirst. He was later honored with various medals, including a Purple Heart, for his service.
After the war Kennedy briefly became a newspaper correspondent before entering into politics. He first ran for Congress from Massachusetts in 1946, with the backing of his father, who poured massive amounts of cash into this and subsequent campaigns. Kennedy served three terms in the House. Then, in 1952 he was elected to the United States Senate, defeating Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. He was re-elected to the Senate in 1958 before running for President in 1960.
Here are some additional revelations from this book. Before and during his presidency, Kennedy experienced many health problems that were not disclosed to the American people. When he was still in college he was frequently hospitalized. Today many of his health problems have been attributed to Addison’s disease, which is a disorer of the adrenal glands, however JFK’s health issues were much more complicated than that. According to the book, he experienced lifelong gastrointestinal problems and chronic back pain. He was frequently medicated with steroids and other drugs. Other revelations in the book involve Kennedy’s sex life. Before and during his marriage to Jackie, JFK was a womanizer. He had many conquests. One of his many affairs might have been with Marilyn Monroe. The also author says that the infamous White House taping system, which would later result in Nixon’s downfall, was installed by Kennedy! There were even missing tapes, he says, speculating that they might have been destroyed to cover up dalliances with Marilyn, or perhaps a secret plot against Castro, or perhaps details of JFK’s health problems.
More notes about JFK, his family and his presidency:
Kennedy wrote several books, the most famous of which is “Profiles In Courage,” which was probably ghost written. He also published “Why England Slept,” which was his college thesis, about Britain failing to strengthen its military in the aftermath of the first world war even as Germany was becoming more of a menace.
Kennedy was not considered a true liberal by Democratic Party standard-bearers such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson.
Unlike his father, who was an isolationist, Kennedy was a globalist.
JFK traveled extensively before becoming president, including all over Europe and South America. He was curious about the world.
Civil rights leaders were frustrated by lack of progress during his presidential administration.
The civil rights march on Washington in which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech took place when Kennedy was president.
He was Catholic, which at the time of his election was a huge issue.
Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, who became Speaker of the House, was successor to JFK in his House seat.
As president, Kennedy made a visit to West Berlin and spoke before a massive crowd.
The presidential couple had a daughter, Caroline Kennedy, who would one day serve as ambassador to Japan. Today she is their only surviving descendant.
Their son, John F. Kennedy Jr., also known as John-John, who was just turning 3 years old when his father was killed, became a lawyer and magazine publisher and might have gone into politics himself one day. But he died in a plane crash along with his wife and sister-in-law in 1999.
John and Jackie also had a daughter who was stillborn, and a son who died in infancy.
In order of birth starting with the oldest, the Kennedy siblings consisted of Joseph aka Joe Jr.; John; Rosemary; Kathleen; Eunice; Patricia; Robert aka Bobby; Jean; and Edward aka Ted.
Joe Jr. was killed during World War II. Kathleen was killed in a plane crash in 1948. Rosemary was developmentally disabled and, sadly, she spent most of her life institutionalized.
According to Kennedy family lore, Joe Jr. was the one who was destined to become president someday, but when the oldest son was killed during World War II the mantle fell upon John.
Eunice married Sargent Shriver, who helped found the Peace Corps and who was George McGovern’s vice presidential running mate in 1972. One of their children is Maria Shriver, the television journalist who was married to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Eunice founded the Special Olympics.
Patricia was married to the actor Peter Lawford.
Robert F. Kennedy, also known as RFK or Bobby Kennedy, was JFK’s Attorney General and one of his closest political advisors. Bobby clashed with LBJ. In 1965 he became a Senator from New York, and he was running for the Democratic nomination for president when he was assassinated in 1968 the night he won the California primary.
Jean served as ambassador to Ireland and died this past June.
Edward Kennedy, more commonly known as Ted, became a Senator from Massachusetts during the JFK presidency. He served for 47 years until his death from brain cancer in 2009.
John F. Kennedy was the eighth and most recent president to die in office and the fourth to be killed. Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley were also assassinated. William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Warren G. Harding and Franklin D. Roosevelt died of natural causes.
As I mentioned the Dallek book does not delve into the assassination itself, but each year around this time a number of TV specials about that day in Dallas are shown on the Smithsonian Channel, the History Channel and other channels. I’ve learned a great deal from many of these documentaries, and they stand in stark contrast to the 1991 Oliver Stone movie “JFK,” which in my opinion is total rubbish.
One much more worthwhile film about Kennedy is “Thirteen Days,” from 2000, with Kevin Costner. Although the movie is a bit off in some of the details and personnel involved, in my opinion it does a good job of portraying the skill and thoughtfulness that JFK used to avert nuclear war. It was, in my opinion, Kennedy’s finest hour.
Coney Island is a neighborhood at the far southern tip of Brooklyn featuring an amusement park, a boardwalk and a beach. It’s where a famous Mermaid Parade takes place every June, where Nathan’s holds a hot dog eating contest each year on the Fourth of July, and where the Polar Bear Club invites civilians to jump in the ocean on New Year’s Day, no matter how cold the weather. During the summer months, there are lifeguards here, and bodybuilders take turns showing off at a pull-up bar on the sand. There are tattoo parlors and stands offering frozen alcoholic beverages, and more than a few unsavory characters. The New York Aquarium is also located here. From Manhattan, it takes an hour and fifteen minutes to get here on the Subway. From where I live now in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood, it is six subway stops away or a 45-minute walk. Since I moved here, all the rides, events and attractions have been closed or canceled because of the pandemic, but it is still an interesting place to walk around.
This fabulous book of historical photographs, a gift from my dear friend Garrett Glaser, is filled with all sorts of fascinating information about the rich and colorful history of this unique spot. There have been a number of different amusement parks located here, including Astroland, Feltmans, Luna Park and Steeplechase Park, sometimes operating adjacent to one another in a spirit of friendly competition. Attractions over the years have included hotels, resorts, water rides, a parachute jump, a Ferris wheel, and even a hotel shaped like a giant elephant! Many of these novelties no longer exist, but the Cyclone, pictured on the book’s cover, is still there. I have ridden the Cyclone a number of times over the years, and in my opinion it is one of our country’s best roller coasters. It’s a wooden ride, very fast and steep, similar to the Blue Streak at Cedar Point, but more compact. Also pictured on the cover is the “Astroland Moon Rocket,” which people could climb around inside, and a “Skyride,” in which passengers floated overhead in spherical capsules.
Here are a few more notes about Coney Island:
When people first started visiting the beach in the 1860s, they were fully clothed, sunbathing was unheard of and almost nobody went in the water!
In the 1870s there was a railroad known as the Culver Line that went to Coney Island, still operating today as part of the F line of the New York City Subway!
In the 1960s Fred Trump bought Steeplechase Park and demolished all the fun stuff with the intention of building apartments on the site.
In the 1890s there was a bike path along Ocean Parkway from Prospect Park to Coney Island. That bike path, described as the oldest bike path in the country, is still there, and I have ridden on it myself many times over the years!
Coney Island has evolved considerably over the past 150-plus years, and this book does a nice job of documenting much of this history. One thing that strikes me is seeing the very large crowds in many of the historical pictures. Thanks for this wonderful book, Garrett!
After Eisenhower led the Allies to victory over Hitler in World War II, he went on to become our nation’s 34th President. Elected in 1952 and re-elected in 1956, he served two full terms. His predecessor was Truman, and his successor was JFK. Richard Nixon was his vice president. Ike, a moderate Republican, was immensely popular. He was a fiscal conservative but not an ideologue. Unlike many in his party who wanted to dismantle the New Deal, Ike oversaw the expansion of Social Security and increased its benefits. He implemented an increase in the federal minimum wage. He supported more access to health care, and he established the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He funded the development of the polio vaccine.
On making our country a bit less racist, Eisenhower made some progress. Ike’s five appointments to the Supreme Court included both conservatives and liberals, most notably Chief Justice Earl Warren, who wrote the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision that desegregated the nation’s schools. Ike signed civil rights legislation in 1957 and 1960, but these bills were largely toothless. In the American armed services, meanwhile, Truman had already ordered desegregation but the military leaders had dragged their feet. Ike got better results.
Ike was responsible for two of our nation’s most important infrastructure projects, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Interstate Highway System. I’ll say more about the highways in a moment.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was born in a small town in Texas and grew up in Abilene, Kansas. He had many siblings, mostly brothers. The family was not wealthy. Ike married Mamie Doud, and their marriage featured many ups and downs over the years. They had two sons, the first of whom died in early childhood. The son who survived, John Eisenhower, had a military career like his father. John Eisenhower had four children, the eldest of whom, David Eisenhower, would eventually marry Richard Nixon’s daughter Julie.
Like many generals before and since, Ike attended West Point. He was an average student there. He passed a merit exam to get in. Attending West Point allowed Ike to embark upon a successful military career. When World War I broke out Ike wanted to be sent to Europe, but instead he was assigned to a number of posts stateside. He became an expert on tanks.
By the time World War II broke out Ike had advanced in rank. Leap-frogging over many other generals who had more seniority and battlefield experience, he was chosen to lead the Allied invasion of northern Africa. Later, even more importantly, Ike led the allied invasion of France as Supreme Allied Commander. D-Day, as it became known, was the largest military engagement the world has seen before or since. It involved incomprehensible planning and organizational detail. Under Ike’s leadership, the invasion was a success and turned the tide of war against the Nazis once and for all. All during the war, to his credit, Ike dealt skillfully with three of the world’s most daunting and colossal egos: the American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and French resistance leader Charles de Gaulle. After WWII ended, Ike served as Army Chief of Staff and Supreme Commander of NATO, and he also served as President of Columbia University.
Although Ike had never disclosed a party affiliation — or if he even had one — both the Democrats and the Republicans wanted him to run for president. When he ran on the GOP ticket in 1952 he did so in opposition to the isolationist wing of his party that was headed by Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, who was President William Howard Taft’s son. That November Ike defeated the Democratic nominee, Illinois Governor Adlai Stephenson, in a landslide, and he did so again in a rematch in 1956. His campaign slogan was “I like Ike.”
Here are some additional notes about Ike:
Everyone called him Ike.
During his service overseas during World War II, he had an affair with a woman who was not his wife. According to personal correspondence of those involved, this was indeed a sexual relationship. The “other woman” was Kay Summersby, who was Ike’s driver and later his secretary. She was British. They carried on with each other in full view of other military leaders and even in front of FDR when he met with Ike in person during the war. Ike and Kay had a dog together, and they were so open as to go to the theater in London and be photographed. Not surprisingly, Mamie, who was back home in Washington, found out about the affair.
The marriage between Ike and Mamie was, apparently, not completely happy in all respects. Even before Ike’s affair, the two lived apart for much of the time.
The presidential retreat Camp David is named for David Eisenhower, Ike’s grandson, the one who married the Nixon daughter.
Ike was physically active. He played and then coached football. He became a golfer.
He could pilot an aircraft.
He was a chain smoker until one day he quit. When asked how he was able to give up his lifelong habit so abruptly he replied that it was simple, he just gave myself “an order.”
Ike had a heart attack and a stroke during his presidency, and also he underwent intestinal surgery.
During his military career, Ike served under Generals George C. Marshall, John J. Pershing and Douglas MacArthur. He spent several years working under Pershing, who had been the top U.S. general during World War I, on a monuments commission in Europe. He also was stationed in the Philippines for several years under MacArthur.
According to the book, Ike did not have undiluted admiration for MacArthur.
Ike also had a less than stellar opinion of Nixon.
Ike was president during “McCarthyism” — the anti-Communist era in our government that was largely based on irrational fear and false accusations from Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and many others including Nixon and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. The witch hunts got started under Truman but ended under Eisenhower
In the 1950s France was heavily involved in Vietnam and sought U.S. assistance, but Eisenhower was wary of U.S. entanglement there.
In a televised farewell address to the nation, Ike warned policy makers not to become beholden to defense contractors. In his televised speech, Ike famously coined a new term: “military-industrial complex.”
This is all according to “Eisenhower in War and Peace,” the 766-page biography by historian Jean Edward Smith. Published in 2012 and filled with lots of photographs and references to original source material, this biography offers so much information that my book report today can only scratch the surface. In his footnotes, Mr. Smith dispels some misconceptions about Eisenhower perpetrated by others over the years, especially by author Stephen E. Ambrose, who is considered by many (wrongly, in my view) to be the top historian on Eisenhower. This is another long book that seemed short. It was a pleasure to read. Approximately a third of the book is devoted to Eisenhower’s upbringing and early life, and then it’s about equal parts World War II and the presidency. For me, the emotional high point of the book came in the aftermath of Brown vs. Board of Education, when Ike sent in federal troops to Little Rock, Ark., to protect the right of nine black students to attend public school.
In my view Eisenhower was, all in all, a good president. Sometimes he is referred to as a “caretaker president,” but that might not be a bad thing. As Mr. Smith points out in this book, Ike kept the economy on an even keel and balanced the federal budget. He worked well with Democrats in Congress, and he had a genuine respect for the U.S. Constitution. To his credit, Ike also ended the fighting in Korea and prevented the U.S. from going to war with the USSR and China. The way I see it, steering a middle course, especially in times of peace and economic growth, is usually the best. And the American people approved of Ike throughout his entire presidency by ranking him very high in public approval polls and in his two landslide victories, in ’52 and ’56.
But — on the other hand, not everything Eisenhower did was beneficial to all Americans and to the country as a whole. Perhaps intentionally or because he wasn’t paying enough attention, Ike allowed the CIA to undermine and ultimately topple the legitimately elected governments in Iran and Guatemala, setting off unfathomable negative consequences. It also became a pattern.
Also troubling, and not mentioned in the book, is that it was under the Eisenhower administration that an irrational, unfair policy of excluding gays and lesbians from the federal workforce was implemented as part of the Communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era. This anti-gay discrimination in the federal government — known today as the “lavender scare” — lasted for decades and did untold damage to countless lives.
Also not mentioned in the book and even more problematic, in my opinion, is that the country’s fancy new highways, combined with federal neglect of trains and public transportation, paved the way for white flight to the suburbs and the growth of the shopping mall — all of which fostered racial and economic disparity, the effects of which we are still dealing with today.
That famous photograph of Harry S. Truman holding up a newspaper with the erroneous headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” was taken in St. Louis the day after the 1948 presidential election. Truman became our nation’s 33rd President in April 1945, when FDR died in office at the end of World War II. In short order and on Truman’s watch, we defeated Nazi Germany and then Japan and brought our boys home. But Truman had not been very popular during his first four years in office. Public opinion polls, the press and his fellow politicians all projected that he was going to lose. When the early returns on election night indicated as much, the editors of the Chicago Daily Tribune (now the Chicago Tribune) printed their headline, which turned out to be wrong, giving Truman something to laugh about.
That fall, the man from Independence, Missouri, ever confident, had campaigned energetically across large swaths of the country, largely from the back of a train, and wherever he went he drew impressive crowds. Even when his train made whistle-stop stops in small towns in the wee hours, large masses turned out to hear this down-to-earth, man-on-the street kind of man. In many ways he was a man of the people. He knew what it was like to put in a hard day’s work. He had been a farmer, and a small business owner. He was a war veteran too. He was not a great orator, but he always spoke honestly and directly, without equivocation or trying to play both sides of the coin. Famously, he never blamed others.
Before he became Vice President and then President, Truman served in the United States Senate, where he developed a reputation as a “New Deal Democrat.” As President, he was even more progressive in many respects than FDR had been. He called for a higher minimum wage, and proposed increased federal spending for education, housing and public works projects. He also called for universal health care for all Americans. He called these proposals the “Fair Deal.” Truman was also better than FDR had been on civil rights. He laid the groundwork for the desegregation of the U.S. military, and he prohibited discrimination based on race for those applying for civil service jobs.
On the world stage, Truman supported the formation of the United Nations and NATO, and he pledged support to countries electing their own leaders in free elections. This policy, known as the Truman Doctrine, was intended as a check on the growing influence of the Soviet Union. Truman was also responsible for the Marshall Plan, which provided postwar economic aid to Western Europe, and the Berlin Airlift, which delivered food and other supplies to the Western part of Berlin that was surrounded by the Soviets. He recognized the state of Israel upon its founding in 1948.
It was also Truman who made the fateful decision to drop nuclear bombs on Japan. And he sent our troops to Korea, which would eventually cost countless thousands of American lives. What I did not realize before reading “Truman,” the masterful, thousand-page biography by David McCullough, is how much worse these things would have turned out to be, had it not been for the bespectacled man in the White House with a sign on his desk that said “The Buck Stops Here.” When Truman made a decision, it was only after careful deliberation about what he thought was best for the country. If that made him less popular, so be it.
It was toward the end of his time in office that Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur, thus plunging his already low public approval even lower. At the time this was shocking. But with the passage of time many, including me, believe that MacArthur was a dangerous demagogue who needed to be fired. It took a man like Truman to have the guts to dismiss him. The general had threatened to use nuclear weapons against China. And he interfered with Truman’s diplomatic efforts to bring the fighting in Korea to an end. By relieving MacArthur, Truman solidified one of the most important principles of our Constitution, which is civilian control of the military.
Another of Truman’s achievements was the formation of the Atomic Energy Commission, which is now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which put control of atomic weapons and energy in elected civilian hands, rather than the military.
When he left office Truman was unpopular, but over time his standing in the eyes of the public began to improve, to the point at which, today, when surveys are conducted, he usually ranks in the upper tier.
Truman was born in 1884 and hailed from Independence, Missouri. Today that’s part of the Kansas City metropolitan area, but in Truman’s day it was a completely different city. After graduating from high school he attended a business college but did not graduate. Instead he took a number of jobs, including railroad timekeeper and bank clerk. He also worked for his father on a farm in Grandview, Missouri.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917 Truman was old enough that he could have stayed home, but instead he enlisted and went to France as an officer, where his talents as a leader emerged. Truman served in the war with bravery and initiative. He fought in three battles and later received medals.
Upon returning from the war, he opened a men’s clothing store in Kansas City with a business partner, which was successful until an economic downturn forced it out of business. But Truman paid off his store’s debts over the course of many years.
After the store went out of business Truman entered politics, as an elected county judge, with the help of the Pendergrasts, who were a well-connected political family. Truman himself was not corrupt, but the Pendergrasts were involved in all manner of shady dealings and Truman’s association with them caused grief for him for decades to come. Being county judge was an administrative job, not the kind of judge who presides over trials. Truman was responsible for building roads. And rather than awarding the contracts to friends of the Pendergrasts, he hired construction crews who could actually do the work and do it well and under budget. The roads in that part of the state had never been better.
In 1934 Truman was elected to the United States Senate, and he was re-elected in 1940. His crowning achievement as a Senator was his work as chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, which became known as the Truman Committee. The goal was to root out waste, fraud and abuse in the military. Truman and his fellow committee members held hearings and made visits to military bases. But there was no grandstanding the way many other Senate committees conducted themselves. The Truman Committee took its business seriously, ultimately saving our nation untold billions of dollars. In my view, the work of Truman and his committee proved to be absolutely vital to our country’s ability to achieve victory in World War II.
In 1944, when FDR ran for his unprecedented fourth term, he was in failing health and party insiders decided to dump Vice President Henry Wallace from the ticket because he was considered too far left, and replace him with Truman. According to the book, Truman did not want to do this but was strong-armed by FDR into going along with the plan. As fate would have it, Truman was Vice President for just 82 days before FDR died and he was summoned to the White House to take the oath of office.
Here are some additional notes about our nation’s 33rd President:
He played the piano.
The S. was a middle initial only, in honor of both is paternal and maternal grandfathers — Anderson Ship Truman and Solomon Young, respectively.
As a boy Truman had eyeglasses, which made him an oddball in rural Missouri.
He married Bess Wallace, and they had a single child, a daughter named Margaret.
Truman’s heroes were Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Robert E. Lee.
Both before and during his presidency, Truman traveled extensively throughout the country.
He was an avid reader who was thoroughly educated about American history. He knew all about the Civil War, as well, including its many generals and all the battles and who won each and how.
When he was president, Truman had four Secretaries of State: Edward Stettinius Jr. (whom he inherited from FDR), James F. Byrnes, George Marshall and Dean Acheson. That third Secretary of State gave his name to the Marshall Plan, although it was really Truman’s plan but Truman wanted Marshall’s name on it to get it through Congress.
During his presidency Truman conducted a much-needed gut renovation of the White House, and while the construction was under way he and his wife and daughter lived across the street, in Blair House, for several years.
When Truman was staying in Blair House, he was the target of an assassination attempt by two Puerto Rican radicals. A police officer was killed in the gunfight between the would-be assassins, the police and the secret service.
When Truman was president his daughter, Margaret, embarked upon a career as a singer, with modest success. At one point Truman got in a huge public fight with a critic who had written her a bad review. In an interesting plot twist, years later that same newspaper critic was one of the few journalists who came to Truman’s defense when he fired MacArthur!
After Truman left the presidency and returned to Missouri, he had no Secret Service protection, but he did receive it after JFK was killed.
He lived until 1972, making him the earliest president to still be alive when I was born!
“Give ’em Hell, Harry!” was a one-man play, later turned into a movie, in which actor James Whitmore portrays Truman, reflects on his life and re-enacts various White House encounters. When I was very young, my mother and father took me to see this movie, and I remember being really bored but my parents thoroughly enjoyed themselves.
As I mentioned, I learned so much about Truman by reading the biography by McCullough. It was a pleasure to read this book, which is a comprehensive, cradle-to-grave narrative complete with helpful photographs, notes, index and bibliography. This was a long book that seemed short, and there is much, much more in it than mentioned above. There are some laugh-out-loud anecdotes, including one about a White House staff member fixing drinks for the first family and another in which Truman, while out on a walk, tells a tree that it’s doing a good job.
I followed up McCullough with a second book, “Harry S. Truman” by Margaret Truman, at 581 pages. I remember my father having a copy of this book in paperback. I found a used copy at the Strand Bookstore before the pandemic. I was slightly disappointed in Margaret Truman’s book. I thought she would write more about the family life. Instead she focused on policy, but the descriptions of meetings were so detailed that I suspected that Truman himself wrote the book, or large portions of it, to help settle scores. Just a hunch.
Anyway, if you’re interested in reading just one book about Truman and it’s between these two, I would recommend McCullough’s. As for me, someday I definitely want to read more about Truman. In my view, he was one of our nation’s very best presidents.
His book is titled “Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future.” He was born in South Bend, Indiana, in 1982, after his parents moved there from El Paso, Texas. His father is a first-generation American who was born in Malta. He attended Harvard and graduated with honors. Then he was named a Rhodes Scholar and attended Oxford University in England. He got a job at a consulting firm, McKinsey & Co., working for various clients, but he says he did not find that work very rewarding. In 2004 he worked on John Kerry’s unsuccessful presidential campaign.
In 2009 he joined the United States Navy Reserve, becoming a Lieutenant. In 2010 he ran for State Treasurer of Indiana but lost. The following year, he ran for Mayor of South bend and won with a big majority. As mayor, he focused on the local issues of importance, including modernizing the sewer system, the implementation of a 311 system, and municipal budgeting. One of his signature achievements was a “1,000 properties in 1,000 days” initiative to repair or demolish many of the city’s vacant houses. In 2014, while he was mayor, he was deployed to Afghanistan and served for one tour of duty. He took a leave of absence as mayor to fulfill his military commitment.
In 2015, after returning from active military duty and resuming his mayoral duties, he came out publicly in a column he wrote for the South Bend Tribune in which he revealed his sexual orientation to one and all. Also in 2015, he spoke out against an anti-gay Indiana state law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed by then Governor Mike Pence. Later that year, he was re-elected with an even larger majority.
A few more notes on Mayor Pete Buttigieg:
He plays the piano!
He’s also really smart and speaks multiple languages, although he does not brag about this in his book.
He met his husband, Chasten Glezman, on a dating app, and they were married in 2017.
Together they adopted a rescue dog and named him Truman (after the President).
His second term ended on January 1 of this year, so now he is former Mayor.
In his book, he talks a great deal about his hometown, which was among the hardest hit in the Rust Belt. He also reflects on the vapidity of the catchphrase used by the current occupant of the White House. In the concluding, and best, chapter of the book, he points out that what’s printed on that red hat is actually a backward-looking slogan based largely on fear. He articulates many of the feelings I have had myself about this for some time now. Therefore in today’s book report I will let the Mayor have the final words:
“There is no going back. South Bend cannot and should not rewind to the Studebaker heyday of the 1950s, just as America cannot restore the old order in which families obeyed a single, male head of household, each race had its so-called place, average weather was the same from one decade to the next, and a job was for life.
“We don’t actually want to go back. We just think we do, sometimes, when we feel more alert to losses than to gains. A sense of loss inclines us, in vulnerable moments, to view the future with an expectation of harm. But when this happens, we miss the power of a well-envisioned future to inspire us toward greatness.
“There is nothing necessarily wrong with greatness, as an aspiration, a theme, or even as the basis of a political program. The problem, politically, is that we keep looking for greatness in all the wrong places. We think we can find it in the past, dredged up from some impossible ‘again,’ when it reality it is available only to those who fix their vision on the future.
“South Bend, for all our struggles, has formed my faith in a great future.”
The best thing that happens in this very long book is that Hitler kills himself. It comes at the end, in late April 1945. By this time the Allies, under the command of General Eisenhower, had retaken France and were advancing into Germany from the West. The Russian army was closing in on Berlin from the East, and the leader of the Third Reich was holed up in an underground bunker with military personnel, some aides, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife and their six young children, and a few other hangers-on, including a female companion, Eva Braun, whose secret relationship with the Fuehrer had been kept from the public all this time.
With his regular army disintegrating by the day, the deranged murderous lunatic at the center of it all was ordering old men, and even boys as young as 10 years old, to fight. Some of this insanity is depicted in the Oscar-nominated movie “Jojo Rabbit,” which is in current release and is presented as a comedy even though the story is anything but funny. Hitler was cruel and evil, and he was also crazy. In the end he was telling his people that he was about to unleash secret weapons (not a nuclear bomb but rather jet fighters and rockets) that would alter the course of the war — which, by this time, he was losing decisively. Hitler had also been consulting his horoscope, which told of a big sign coming that would signal a change in the course of the war. Even when the “sign” materialized (FDR’s death), it did not change things. The war in Europe was about to end with the total defeat of Nazi Germany. Sadly, this did not come before 50 million soldiers and civilians had been killed. Among the dead were 6 million Jews, who had been murdered by racist thugs as part of an intricately planned, systematic effort at genocide.
Hitler died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, and his wife died of cyanide poisoning when she bit down on a glass capsule. Their bodies were then placed outside in a bomb crater and, as per Hitler’s instructions, doused with gasoline and burned. They had been married just a day before, in a late-night ceremony in which both bride and groom had to vow in accordance with German law that they were each of pure Aryan blood. The next day Goebbels and his wife killed their six children and then themselves. Others in the bunker either committed suicide or fled. This is depicted in the 2004 movie “Downfall,” in German with English subtitles. The German military officially surrendered a week later.
“The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” by William L. Shirer, is a book I had been long meaning to read, but it’s length — more than 1,200 pages including notes and bibliography — and dark subject matter had held me back. The picture of the book shown here is a hi-res scan of my hard copy. I chose to cover the Nazi emblem on the jacket and spine with black masking tape. It was originally published in 1960. This is a 30th anniversary edition published in 1990. The author was a broadcast journalist who was in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power and who witnessed many of the events firsthand. He also drew upon the vast amount of Nazi government documents that were recovered after the war, testimony of witnesses and defendants at the Nuremburg trials that followed, as well as personal interviews.
I picked up this book now because it fits in well with the World War II-era presidents I am currently reading biographies of. I wanted to learn more about the war and about Hitler, especially where he came from and how he came to power. It was not pleasant to read this book, which describes what is arguably the darkest chapter in all of human history.
For today’s book report I’ll summarize some of the key points of what I learned, but first, some terminology. Reich means realm or empire. The Third Reich was Nazi Germany, which lasted for 12 years, from 1933 to 1945. The First Reich refers to the Holy Roman Empire, which existed from the Middle Ages until the rise of Napoleon in the early 19th century. The Second Reich was better known as the German Empire, which existed from the 1870s until the end of World War I. During both eras there were various emperors (Kaisers) including the last one, Wilhelm II, who had to abdicate at the end of World War I. The Weimar Republic followed World War I and was the constitutional system of representational government established in Germany, with free elections, which sadly only lasted for about 15 years, until Hitler and his Nazi party came to power.
The Nazi party was the National Socialist German Workers Party, or National Socialist party, which is a misnomer because the Nazis were not socialists. Rather, the party was based on militant nationalism, expansionism, totalitarianism and overt racism. Fuehrer, which is what they called Hitler, is German for leader. The Luftwaffe was the German air force. The Wehrmacht was the German armed forces, including the army, navy and air force. U-boats were German submarines, as depicted in the 1981 film “Das Boot,” in German with English subtitles. Blitzkrieg meant lightning war, which involved using tanks to overwhelm armies in quick, overwhelming attacks. Lebensraum meant living space, which is what Hitler wanted more of for the German people, but only those belonging to the Aryan race, which he considered superior to all others.
Hitler laid out his plans in “Mein Kampf,” which translates to “My Struggle.” According to Hitler and his stupid book, the master race was entitled to expand eastward, take over the land and kill or enslave the inferior races. That was his evil plan from the beginning.
Hitler was born in 1889 in Austria, which at the time was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and when he was very young his family moved to Germany, when it was still the German Empire or Second Reich as mentioned above, and then back to Austria. His father was a civil servant and he wanted his son to follow in that career path, but Hitler wanted to become a painter. After dropping out of high school Hitler moved to Vienna and applied to art school, but he was turned away for lack of talent. Vienna at the time was one of the most beautiful, vibrant and cosmopolitan cities in the world, but for the next several years Hitler lived in squalor and might have been homeless for a time. He started reading racist literature that helped solidify his hatred for Jews.
In 1913, according to the book, Hitler moved to Munich, to avoid military service in Austria because he did not want to serve alongside Jews and others whom he considered undesirable. He was still an unemployed loser when war broke out a year later, and despite not being a German citizen he managed to get permission to join the Bavarian army. He fought bravely and received the Iron Cross. He attained the rank of Corporal. He was wounded twice, first by being shot in the leg and the second time by a gas attack that left him temporarily blind. It was during his convalescence in the hospital that Germany surrendered, thus ending World War I. According to the book, Hitler cried over this like a baby and later started to blame the “November criminals” for their “stab in the back.” According to this ugly conspiracy theory, which took hold, it was Jewish bankers and others pulling strings behind the scenes which led to Germany’s premature and unnecessary surrender in the war. In truth the German military had been soundly defeated.
The Treaty of Versailles came about after World War I and required Germany to pay reparations and severely limited its ability to build up a military force. It also required Germany to cede territory. To most Germans, these measures were humiliating. Even worse, two rounds of economic hardship ensued. First, there was a period of runaway inflation in the early 1920s that left many people financially destitute. Then, when the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929 it set off not only an American depression but a global one, causing massive unemployment throughout Europe and especially in Germany. These were ripe conditions for fringe political parties to take root.
After the war Hitler returned to Munich and got involved with one of these radical organizations, which was a precursor to the Nazi Party, which Hitler took control of. With his hateful, angry rhetoric, Hitler made many speeches and attracted a following. In 1923 he and his followers attempted to overthrow the Weimar Republic in a coup, which became known as the Beer Hall Putsch. The revolt was unsuccessful, resulting in violence in which police killed several of the co-conspirators. Hitler survived the confrontation and ran away, only to be arrested later. During his subsequent trail, Hitler caused a spectacle in the courtroom with his angry outbursts, which only increased his fame and notoriety. He was convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment, but he was released after about a year.
While he was incarcerated Hitler began working on “Mein Kampf.” He also reflected on his unsuccessful coup, realizing that if he was to overthrow the government he needed something to replace it with. He also concluded that to come to power he would have to do so through constitutional means, and by infiltrating existing institutions. He and his fellow Nazis divided up the country into districts and appointed regional and local leaders to act as a de-facto shadow government. They also started running candidates for office. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, they established a quasi-military police force, the Sturmabteilung (the SA, also known as the Brownshirts) which were basically a bunch of street thugs who used violence and intimidation to bully their political opponents. In federal elections in 1924, 1928, 1930 and 1932, Nazis won seats in the Reichstag, the German legislature, but they never attained a majority. But by 1932 they had more seats than any other party. Also in 1932 Hitler ran for president but lost to Paul von Hindenburg, the incumbent, who was a war hero. The way it worked is that the President appointed the Chancellor, who would form a government. But it was difficult to form a government with so many political parties vying for power. In the midst of all this political chaos, in 1933, Hindenburg, who by this time was a very old man and close to death, named Hitler Chancellor.
Shortly thereafter there was a fire in the Reichstag building, which the Nazis blamed on the Communists. In the ensuing confusion, Hitler persuaded Hindenburg to issue a decree giving him emergency powers. The legislature subsequently passed an Enabling Act, officially ceding their power to Hitler. Then a year later Hindenburg died, and rather than calling for new elections Hitler proclaimed himself Supreme Leader and Chancellor, in essence dictator for life. With his new power Hitler outlawed all the rival political parties and had their leaders jailed, shot or sent away to concentration camps. At first the concentration camps were not death camps. That came later. Hitler also outlawed unions and silenced academics and clergy who dared to speak out against him. He also took control of the press. He basically created a police state. Hitler enacted a number of laws targeting Jews, who were forbidden to work at universities or at various other jobs. Many fled or were deported. In November 1938 it got even worse when Jewish schools, synagogues, private homes and businesses were destroyed in a single night of terror, what became known as Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass.
Hitler was also preparing for war. When he set forth his crazy ideas to the generals, many knew immediately that this would ultimately lead to complete ruin for Germany. But those who dared raise objections were fired, killed or otherwise eliminated by Hitler, one by one. And in disobedience of the Versailles Treaty, first secretly and then openly, Hitler began a campaign to build up the German military, with more ships, tanks and warplanes. This caused unemployment to fall, but wages were low and it was difficult if not impossible for workers to change jobs or seek better working conditions.
Also in violation of Versailles, Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland, which had been occupied by France, but nobody stopped him. This was in 1936. According to the book, this was the riskiest move Hitler had yet made and had the French stopped him, his whole house of cards would have fallen right then and there. But Hitler had sensed that the World War I allies were wary of armed conflict and would let him get away with quite a lot. He was correct. Hitler next turned his sights on Austria, where many citizens were of German heritage. In March 1938, in what became known as the Anschluss, Hitler annexed Austria. He marched his armies right in and took over, without firing a shot. This is the backdrop of the events depicted in the musical and movie “The Sound of Music.” In the film’s best scene, Captain Von Trapp tears down a Nazi flag and rips it in half. And of course at the end of the movie, rather than accepting a commission in the German Navy, he and Maria lead their family to safety over the Alps into Switzerland.
Next Hitler targeted Czechoslovakia, specifically the Sudetenland, or border regions, again where many citizens of German heritage lived. In a policy that became known as appeasement, the allies allowed Hitler to take the Sudetenland with a promise that he would stop there. Of course he was lying. Hitler was constantly lying. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made three separate trips to Germany and after the third visit, which took place in Munich in September 1938, he met personally with Hitler and when he returned home he waved the paper and was hailed as a hero for securing the peace.
Shortly thereafter Hitler took not only the Sudetenland but the interior of Czechoslovakia as well, and then he made a non-aggression pact with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and agreed that Germany and the USSR would divide Poland. When Germany invaded Poland on Sept 1, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. At this time King George VI (Queen Elizabeth II’s father) addressed his nation, the back story of which is depicted in the 2010 film “The King’s Speech.
But neither England nor France was on a war footing. France was especially ill equipped. The German army conquered Poland in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile Britain sent troops to the continent, but the leaders of Britain and France had trouble communicating with each other and failed to put up much of a fight at all. Germany was able to run roughshod over not only Poland but many more countries as well, including Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The German army also invaded France, which fell in about a week. Hitler then went on a victory procession down the Champs Elysees in Paris. Soon the entire British army became trapped and surrounded on the northern coast of France. Under the leadership of Winston Churchill, who succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister of Great Britain, more than 300,000 troops were evacuated home across the English Channel. For more on this miraculous escape, watch the 2017 movies “Dunkirk,” which is violent, and “Darkest Hour,” which is inspirational and ends on a hopeful note.
Hitler’s next plan was to persuade Britain to surrender. He had plans to invade, but first he decided to attack from the air. In what became known as the Battle of Britain, the German Luftwaffe bombed London, which was defended by the Royal Air Force. It was a ferocious conflict that went on for months, but ultimately the British fighter pilots prevailed. During this time Churchill delivered a number of speeches to the British people that held up morale. King George VI decided to stay in London with his family rather than flee to Canada, which also helped reassure the British people.
After being frustrated by England, Hitler next decided to invade the Soviet Union! (Had he read my book report on Napoleon, he would have known what a bad idea that would turn out to be!) In “Operation Barbarossa,” the German army advanced all the way to Moscow and then got trapped in the cold, brutal winter. They were also held back in Stalingrad. Rather than allow his army to strategically retreat, Hitler ordered his generals to stay and fight to the death. Then, frustrated with his generals, Hitler fired his military chief of staff and rather than replace him, he decided to take over personally. Think about how ridiculous this is. Here is someone whose highest rank to date had been Corporal, and now he thinks he knows better than all his generals.
But it was about to get even worse for the murderous lunatic. About the same time Hitler was losing battles in the Soviet Union, on the other side of the world, the United States was bombed in Hawaii. Our country then declared war on Japan. And days later Hitler declared war on the Americans, in accordance with a deal he had just made with the Japanese. The United States first got involved in the Middle East and Africa, then Italy, and finally, in June 1944, under the command of General Eisenhower, troops from the United States, Britain and Canada invaded France in what became known as D-Day. This is the part of the war depicted in the 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan.”
It would take almost another year for the Allies to finally defeat Germany, and sadly the end of the Third Reich did not come fast enough. Beginning with the invasion of Poland and later with the invasion of Russia, the Nazis escalated their genocidal plans against the Jewish people. At first many Jews were rounded up and shot, others were confined to urban ghettos in Warsaw and other cities. Much of this is depicted in the 1993 movie “Schindler’s List.” This was all a calculated Nazi plan to literally kill all the Jews in Europe. Starting in 1942, in what they called the “Final Solution,” the Nazis started sending Jews to concentration camps to be murdered in gas chambers and their bodies were burned. In addition to Jews, Roma (Gypsies) and homosexuals were also killed, but most of the victims were Jews. At Auschwitz alone, it is estimated that more than a million people were murdered. There’s an exhibit to this horror currently on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage here in New York City.
Here are a few more notes about Hitler:
He was a vegetarian!
He was a fan of classical music and opera, especially Wagner.
His family name was Shicklgruber, which would have been Hitler’s own last name except his father, who was of illegitimate birth, had the name changed.
He did not become a German citizen until 1932.
Before Hitler rose to power he had a relationship with a cousin, who died of a gunshot wound. She might have been murdered, or she might have committed suicide.
He dictated Mein Kampf to Rudolf Hess and several others.
Hitler designed the Nazi flag himself, with the black swastika in the center of a white disk on a red background. This became the flag of Germany from 1935 to 1945 and was used during the Olympics in Berlin in 1936 and was on the famous Hindenburg blimp, which went down in flames over New Jersey in 1937.
Before the swastika was stolen by Hitler as a symbol of hate, the icon was used in many different cultures throughout history, including in Asia and even among some American Indian tribes.
The Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was in power at the same time as Hitler, and their fates are intertwined in many ways. Italy and Germany were Axis allies during World War II, along with Japan. Mussolini was deposed in 1943, only to be rescued later by the Nazis. Toward the end of the war, Mussolini was executed by firing squad by his fellow Italians, and his body was hung upside down and defiled. This might have been a reason Hitler wanted his own body to be burned.
As part of his plan to seize power, Hitler had the leaders of the SA killed in what become known as the “Blood Purge,” also called the “Night of the Long Knives.” Hitler did this to prevent trouble with the regular German military.
The SS (Schutzstaffel) was originally part of the SA but it continued under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler, who was one of the most evil of all Nazis. The SS under Himmler ran the concentration camps and carried out the Holocaust.
There is much more in the book, including many passages about the many plots to arrest or kill Hitler over the years. The most famous of the plots was depicted in the 2008 film “Valkyrie,” starring Tom Cruise. The book also has lots on diplomacy, especially leading up to the war, and it is quite detailed in that regard, often describing the frantic meetings on a day-by-day or even hour-by-hour basis. Yet as long as the book is, and as much information it contains, it barely scratches the surface of the horrors unleashed on this world by Hitler.
In 1905, when he was just 26 years old and working as a clerk in the Swiss patent office in Bern, he wrote four scientific papers that would forever change the way humanity comprehends some of the most fundamental laws of nature:
First, he demonstrated that light comes in specific quantities or packets, called quanta, later to be called photons, and this discovery helped explain the photoelectric effect, which is what happens when light bounces off an object. This disproved the long-held belief in “ether,” or a substance in space through which light waves were thought to travel.
He helped prove the existence of molecules and how they can be measured, and he showed how the existence of molecules explains Brownian motion, or the vibrations of particles suspended in liquid.
He then put forth his theory of Special Relativity, in which he disproved Isaac Newton’s concept of absolute time. According to Einstein, measurements of time, and also of space and distance, are relative to the motion of the observer. He said that there can be no absolute time or absolute space, but something he called spacetime.
Next, Einstein came up with the principle of mass-energy equivalence, as expressed in the most famous formula in all of science, e=mc2, in which e is energy, m is mass and c is the speed of light. The equation means that energy can be converted to mass and vice versa. Decades later this formula would lay the foundation for the development of nuclear weapons. More on that in a moment.
Albert Einstein came up with all four of these scientific breakthroughs in a single year, known as his “annus mirabilis” or “miracle year,” in his spare time. That’s because his day job was that of patent clerk, a position he had settled for after being unable to get a job as a professor following his graduation from university in Zurich. Despite having set the scientific world on fire, he remained relatively unknown and even kept his patent clerk job for several more years.
This is according to “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson, a book that describes, in 551 pages, not only Einstein’s many theories but his entire life story as well. For me as a reader, I must admit I found much of the science in this book difficult to understand. Come to think of it, I was actually quite baffled. The chapters on his life and times were much more enjoyable.
Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist. He was born in Germany in 1879. He was a Jew. When he was a boy he was given a compass, which fascinated him. When he was still in his teens he moved to Switzerland and renounced his German citizenship. This might have been to avoid compulsory military service. According to the book, Einstein did not like military parades, soldiers marching in the street or any such glorification of war. He also shunned blind deference to authority. He questioned everything.
He was “stateless” for five years after moving to Switzerland, at which time he became a Swiss citizen. He attended the Swiss federal polytechnic institute in Zurich. He married and would later divorce Mileva Maric, a fellow student who was from Serbia. She was a Christian. They had two sons, Hans Albert Einstein and Eduard Einstein. According to the book, he and Mileva also had a daughter, who apparently either died at a very young age or was given up for adoption. His second wife was Elsa, who was his cousin. She had two daughters, one of whom would eventually live with Einstein. For many decades Einstein had a live-in secretary, Helen Dukas, who was with him constantly and served as his gatekeeper. Einstein also had several mistresses over the years, sometimes in plain view of his wife.
After leaving the job at the patent office, Einstein held several teaching positions and eventually landed at the Prussian Academy of Sciences, in Berlin, where many of the world’s brightest minds then held court. But to go there he had to become a German citizen again. It was from there that he put forth his theory of General Relativity, in which he said, among other things, that gravity happens when objects bend the fabric of spacetime. He also predicted that light from another star would be bent by the Sun’s gravity, and in May 1919, during an eclipse, this was tested and proven to be true. The results were published on the front pages of newspapers around the world, thus making Einstein an overnight global celebrity. From then on his name would be synonymous with the word “genius.”
In 1921 Einstein made his first trip to the United States, at the invitation of Chaim Weizmann, then president of the World Zionist Organization. Everywhere he went Einstein was greeted by large crowds and inquisitive reporters. Einstein played the part of the friendly professor and answered the reporters’ questions with quick, snappy lines delivered with a grin.
In subsequent visits to the United States, Einstein attended the opera, went to a Hollywood film premiere with Charlie Chaplin, was feted with statues, awards and keys to cities, and he spoke at universities. For a time, Einstein expressed pacifist views and even encouraged all who would listen to shun compulsory military service. But when the Nazis came to power in Germany, Einstein’s views on pacifism and conscientious objection to the draft changed. For the second time he renounced his German citizenship. In 1933 Einstein sought refuge, first in Great Britain and then in the United States, accepting a position at Princeton University in New Jersey. He had also been courted by the California Institute of Technology. Einstein spent the rest of his life in the United States. He became a U.S. citizen in 1940. He died in 1955.
At the outset of World War II, Einstein, with the help of another scientist, Leo Szilard, wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt warning that it would be possible to use uranium in a chain reaction that would release an unimaginable amount of energy. The letter was hand delivered to FDR and was read aloud to him. After that and a follow-up letter from Einstein, the president established the top-secret Manhattan Project, which would result in the development of nuclear weapons. Einstein himself did not work on the bomb, Robert Oppenheimer and many other scientists led that effort. When Germany’s defeat in the war seemed imminent, Einstein wrote FDR yet another letter calling for caution in deploying the weapon, but FDR died before he received it and the letter instead went to President Harry S. Truman, who passed it to a subordinate.
Einstein had brought the possibility of a bomb to the attention of FDR because he thought the German scientists back in Berlin would certainly be working on one themselves, but when he learned that was not the case he regretted his decision for the rest of his life. After World War II Einstein spoke out in favor of arms control, and for the establishment of a world government. He wanted a body that would be stronger that the United Nations turned out to be, something with a military force, which he considered necessary to prevent future wars and human annihilation. Isaacson quotes Einstein, speaking to Newsweek magazine, “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger.”
Here are some additional facts about Albert Einstein:
He thought visually, and he conceived of his theories largely in visual terms. He often used “thought experiments” to develop his ideas.
He was a creative thinker who was similar in many ways to those who revolutionized other fields, such as Sigmund Freud in psychology and Pablo Picasso in art.
According to the book, he was not an atheist.
Nor was he a communist. But he was investigated by J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, which kept a file on him.
He believed in social and economic justice, as well as personal freedom. He was skeptical of the socialist revolution when it began in Russia because he felt it would be repressive and authoritarian.
In general, he was good natured and friendly, although he could be emotionally distant and even a bit cruel to those close to him. According to the book, he was especially mean at times to his first wife.
He had wild, unruly hair. It was part of his image of a disheveled scientist. He could also be forgetful and often misplaced his keys or train tickets.
He played the violin.
He also enjoyed sailing.
He had many lifelong friends and scientific colleagues.
One of his friends was Queen Elisabeth (later the Queen Mother) of Belgium.
When his first wife originally refused to give him a divorce, Einstein was able to persuade her by promising to give her the money should he win the Nobel Prize at a future date.
Einstein won the Nobel Prize in 1921, not for relativity but for his work on the photoelectric effect. Isaacson’s book explains all the drama and politics of how that happened.
Originally Einstein had written his famous formula as L=mv2, but he later changed it to E=mc2 to comply with more common symbols.
Before collaborating with Szilard on the letter to FDR, the two patented a refrigerator.
Both of his stepdaughters had husbands who wrote books about Einstein.
After the death of Weizmann, who had become the first president of Israel, Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel, but he politely and firmly declined.
After Einstein’s death, in a ghastly act, his brain was preserved in a jar and was later experimented on by various scientists, none of whom ever learned anything significant.
The theoretical physicist is portrayed in the musical “Einstein’s Dreams,” currently running Off-Broadway, which, in my opinion (I went to see it last weekend) was completely wrong scientifically and on many other levels. It is based on a book of the same name.
In the movies, Walter Matthau gives what I consider to be a much more enjoyable portrayal of Einstein is in the 1994 film “I.Q.,” also starring Meg Ryan and Tim Robbins.
Also during Einstein’s lifetime the field of quantum mechanics took shape. This is the study of atoms and subatomic particles. In his own mind Einstein was troubled by many of these discoveries, which were made by Niels Bohr and many other scientists. That’s because determining the location of an electron around the nucleus of an atom required the use of probabilities, which caused Einstein to utter his immortal words that God does not “play dice” with the universe!
Another facet of quantum mechanics is known as entanglement, which is an observed phenomenon in which two particles that have interacted with each other will have opposite properties even when far apart from each other. Einstein called this “Spooky Action at a Distance,” which is a term still in use today — google it or look it up on YouTube!
Einstein spent the final years of his life thinking and working on a theory that would reconcile relativity with quantum mechanics. It’s an effort that continues to this day.
For me, reading “Einstein: His Life and Universe” was a nice little peek into the world of theoretical physics. I think I might understand some of this stuff a little better now, but I am not sure. But it was still fun to read about, and I am glad I did. This was the second biography I have read by historian Walter Isaacson, who is the former managing editor of Time magazine. Earlier I also read his book on Benjamin Franklin, which was fantastic in my opinion. Isaacson also wrote a biography of Steve Jobs, which I do not plan to read, and another of Leonardo DaVinci, which I certainly will at a future date.